Sam Harris Contra Francis Collins as NIH Head

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I was thinking of writing a response to Sam Harris’s recent bleat against Francis Collins. Collins, a world-class researcher, is also a medical doctor to whom my family owes considerable gratitude; when he was actually practicing medicine years ago, he treated one of our family members. But that’s not why I would want to respond to Sam Harris. It’s because there’s so much that needs to be said.

David Heddle beat me to it with all the best responses. Still I think there’s more to be said about this part of what David wrote:

Science more or less dispenses with all criteria except number one. Science is a meritocracy, one of the few true meritocracies. What has always been relevant in science is: what is the quality of your work? and, to a lesser extent, what is the volume of your work?

We have to bear in mind that the NIH position is not just a scientific position but an administrative/leadership/policy/science position. Does Francis Collins’s Christianity hinder his fulfilling any of the extra-scientific aspects of the job? Part of the answer we can settle quickly. Collins was a Christian when he led the Human Genome project, which was an administrative/leadership/science position. He did a not-too-shabby bit of work there, so based on his resume we ought to allow that he knows how to do those parts of the job.

That leaves policy. (He dealt with policy in the Human Genome Project, too, according to a talk I have heard him give on it, but not at the level he would at the NIH.) This is where Sam Harris might be able to bring a charge that could stick, if he could show that Francis Collins’s Christianity would lead him to adopt some irrational, un-ungodly policy with respect to science in America. So now I’m re-reading Harris’s article to see what kind of policy dangers Collins might pose to the Western world as NIH head. Harris begins with considerable bluster against faith and reason coinciding, but that can’t be it, because clearly he can’t charge Collins with being a poor scientist. Also, as David Heddle points out, there’s an empirical question there that Harris et al. have conveniently ignored:

I have repeatedly asked, on some enormously popular websites such as Myers’s own Pharyngula, for someone, anyone, to demonstrate the science/faith incompatibility charge. The people making this claim are supposed to be scientists or at least scientifically literate. They should understand that a hypothesis that cannot lend itself to testing is inherently unscientific. As many of you know, I proposed a test: I would provide ten peer-reviewed scientific papers, five from believers and five from unbelievers. If the charge that religion and science are incompatible is more than just words, we can posit that it should be possible to detect which papers are polluted by the author’s religion. No one has ever accepted the challenge.

Harris’s major complaint with respect to Collins’s science is that Collins believes God had a part in the process of evolution: he is a theistic evolutionist (though he prefers a different term for it that escapes me at the moment). If there were a scientific test that could empirically disprove theistic evolution, Harris might have a point. But there isn’t one. So this is not a complaint about Collins’s science after all. It’s a complaint about Collins’s religion, masquerading as a concern about his science.

The same goes for this that Harris wrote after quoting some of Collins’s Christian beliefs:

Is it really so difficult to perceive a conflict between Collins’ science and his religion?

It’s not that at all that Collins fails as a scientist, just that there’s something about his religion that poses a problem. Harris compares Collins with James Watson whose career was “defenestrated” (thrown out the window) when he made a stupid remark about race. At least he is candid here about it being a political issue, not a scientific one. Racial bigotry is a real political liability, as it should be. Harris thinks faith in God ought to be an political liability at the same level as racial bigotry.

We’ll come back to that point at the end. Meanwhile I continue to look through Harris’s article for any other policy-related deficiency in Francis Collins. He describes Collins’s conversion experience, and finds that Collins is lacking in good sense or reason. For example:

Collins’ ignorance of world religion is prodigious. For instance, he regularly repeats the Christian talking point about Jesus being the only person in human history who ever claimed to be God (as though this would render the opinions of an uneducated carpenter of the 1st century especially credible). Collins seems oblivious to the fact that saints, yogis, charlatans, and schizophrenics by the thousands claim to be God at this very moment, and it has always been thus. Forty years ago, a very unprepossessing Charles Manson convinced a rather large band of misfits in the San Fernando Valley that he was both God and Jesus

Harris’s ignorance of Jesus among world religious leaders is prodigious. Only Jesus made his claim from within the context of the most monotheistic culture ever to rise, bar the two (Christianity and Islam) that followed in its path. When yogis or “saints” (not Christian saints, obviously) make claims of deity, they’re not making the same claim Jesus made. When charlatans or Charles Manson made the claim, it was obvious they were fakes or madmen. Neither of those is obvious or even credible in the case of Jesus Christ: fakes and madmen do not launch movements that last for millenia and produce the kind of good that Christianity has done. They do not teach with the wisdom Jesus taught. They do not exhibit the humility Jesus did, or make the sacrifice that he made. They do not rise from the dead, either.

Intending to put Collins’s rationality on the rotisserie, Harris continues to skewer himself instead:

It should be obvious that if a frozen waterfall can confirm the specific tenets of Christianity, anything can confirm anything.

It should be obvious that was not what Collins claimed the waterfall did for him. It was just a moment that contributed to his developing view of God, along with many other factors. Harris misrepresented him badly, arguing in obvious bad faith. He is calling Collins irrational, but his proof thereof is seriously lacking.

Does Harris have anything better to offer? The next part of his article might be more promising. This quote begins with Collins’s words, followed by Harris’s response:

As believers, you are right to hold fast to the concept of God as Creator; you are right to hold fast to the truths of the Bible; you are right to hold fast to the conclusion that science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence; and you are right to hold fast to the certainty that the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted…. (Collins, 2006, p.178)

God, who is not limited to space and time, created the universe and established natural laws that govern it. Seeking to populate this otherwise sterile universe with living creatures, God chose the elegant mechanism of evolution to create microbes, plants, and animals of all sorts. Most remarkably, God intentionally chose the same mechanism to give rise to special creatures who would have intelligence, a knowledge of right and wrong, free will, and a desire to seek fellowship with Him. He also knew these creatures would ultimately choose to disobey the Moral Law. (Ibid, p. 200-201)

Imagine: the year is 2006; half of the American population believes that the universe is 6,000 years old; our president had just used his first veto to block federal funding for the most promising medical research on religious grounds; and one of the foremost scientists in the land had that to say, straight from the heart (if not the brain).

First of all, Harris is wrong about “the most promising medical research.” Embryonic stem cells’ medical success has been overwhelmingly negative, while adult or other stem cell research has been quite fruitful. Second, Harris is aghast at Collins’s conclusion that some questions cannot be answered by science. But Collins is right: some questions can’t be answered by science. Does Harris not know that? What really sets him off, though, is that Collins supplies a Christian-based answer to some of those questions.

He scoffs at Collins’s approval of certain religious thinkers, including John Polkinghorne, also a scientist himself. Harris says of Polkinghorne,

The problem, however, is that it is impossible to differentiate his writing on religion—which now fills an entire shelf of books—from an extraordinarily patient Sokal-style hoax [link added].

No, Mr. Harris. Maybe you can’t tell the two apart, but what does that signify? I couldn’t tell a mathematically-intense physics article from a Sokal hoax because I don’t know the field. But I don’t point at all mathematically-intense physics articles and call them nonsense. That would just highlight how huge is my ignorance: not only that I don’t know the field, but that I don’t know that I don’t know the field. If you can’t tell Polkinghorne’s theology from nonsense, it’s because (as you’ve already demonstrated), you don’t know what you’re talking about. Do you know that you don’t know?

So where we on our search for a policy-related deficiency in Francis Collins? Harris didn’t do too well in showing that Collins lacks reasoning ability. He complained about Collins’s belief that some questions can’t be answered by science, but Collins is simply right about that. All of Harris’s anti-Christian opinionating is marred by his patent ignorance (or is it willful misrepresentation?) of the faith. So let’s keep looking.

Again he refers to Collins’s beliefs and responds,

How many scientific laws would be violated by such a scheme? One is tempted to say “all of them.”

Here, though, he wanders out of science into metaphysics with the word “law.” Sure, there are regularities in science. I have an article coming soon on BreakPoint explaining why this is completely compatible with the Christian view of God. To assume that regularities are unbreakable laws, however, is to move beyond what science can prove and into metaphysical thinking. It is not scientific to refer to “scientific laws” in that sense.

So here we have Harris’s metaphysics pitted against Collins’s religious beliefs. Which position disqualifies a person as a spokesman/leader for science? Is it not the one that is so confused it cannot tell the difference between science and metaphysics?

I could go on, but the same kind of thing appears in Harris’s article over and over again. Let’s put the matter to rest: Harris has no good scientific reason to think Collins is unqualified to lead in a policy position. He does a very poor job of making his case that Collins’s rationality is suspect. He gets nowhere at all in proving that Collins’s faith contradicts science. What does he have left? Nothing but this: Collins is the wrong religion. Harris is calling for him to be excluded from a senior Federal government position because he fails a religious test. What do we call this? Bigotry? Unconstitutional? A denial of America’s first and most basic freedom? All of those certainly.

David Heddle said this, too:

Harris hates Christianity. When it cannot be ignored, he goes on the offensive.

We could also call it hatred.

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16 Responses to “ Sam Harris Contra Francis Collins as NIH Head ”

  1. Hello Tom and David

    The people making this claim are supposed to be scientists or at least scientifically literate. They should understand that a hypothesis that cannot lend itself to testing is inherently unscientific.

    Have you not noticed the rise of scientific irrationalism as Christianity is marginalized? We are witnessing the rise of ideological science, wherein ‘science’ is no longer the “pursuit of knowledge” but the pursuit of confirmation for the latest fad. This subversion of science to ideology and the colateral use of media and government to propagate the manifold (and often contradictory) ideologies has discredited the whole enterprise.

    Were I a scientist, I would be denouncing the abuse. (Easy to say, since I am not a scientist, merely a polemicist) Given the amount of ‘junk’ science being produced it is bound to have a deleterious effect on the profession. Evolution, education theory, Kinseyism, stem cells, global warming, and all and sundry news reports that begin with “studies show” are becoming the stuff of a a bad joke.

    Epicureanism is, then, a way of life seeking a universe to support it. Epicurus employs the atomistic materialism of Democritus, not because he has empirical evidence that it is true but because it fits his ethical goal of freedom from disturbance. If we were already tranquil, he says, “we would have no need of natural science.

    http://soli.inav.net/~jfischer/jul99/benjamindwiker.html

  2. Very nice analysis.

    Harris is a militant atheist who has made a lot of money by staking out such an extreme position. By lashing out at a big fish like Collins in the pages of the NYT, Harris is simply trying to remind his followers that he is still relevant in the NA Movement. He wrote up his more lengthy essay in an attempt to milk his NYT article for all its pr worth.

  3. While, even as an atheist, I personally have no problem at all with Francis Collins heading the NIH, I acknowledge the right for people like Sam Harris to voice their opinion.

    It is true, and Harris CONCEDES many times in his articles, that Collins’ credentials are impeccable. His work while still head of the Human Genome Project will forever be remembered. However it is the things Collins has been doing over the last few years (post-HGP)that has got many scientists, and many science minded people, scratching their heads.

    For example, while accusing creationists and ID advocates of employing God-of-the-gaps reasoning on one hand, he turns around and does EXACTLY THE SAME THING when presenting reasons for why there has to be a ‘God'(in his book ‘Language of God’). He points to purported ‘gaps’ in cosmology and astrophysics and says only God could have ‘done it’. He sees some things in nature (e.g altruism)that, according to him, ‘can’t be explained’ and concludes that therefore it must be God at work. This is a glaring example of employing double standards, and is disingenuous.

    Interestingly, scientists DO have plausible explanations for these phenomena, but Collins simply rejects them without giving good reasons for doing so (just like the Intelligent Design theorists he attacks, who tend to reject scientific evidence for things they claim ‘can’t be explained’ by science – bacterial flagellum, anyone?). His critics, who are simply trying to point out these double standards and what they take to be deficiencies in his reasoning, are being labelled ‘militant’. That’s not fair, I think.

    You only have to visit the website that Collins founded, to witness what many of us consider the most atrocious defilement of scientific reasoning that Collins engages in, in an attempt to show that science and religion are compatible (http://biologos.org/questions/image-of-god/).

    It’s made worse by the fact that Collins uses his scientific credentials to promote these patently unscientific ideas. He, of all people, should know that his scientific ideas would need to withstand scrutiny of his peers before they can be taken seriously. Many of his peers find his ‘scientific’ arguments for Christian Theism unpersuasive and unscientific, and are simply telling him why.

    Some of his peers (i.e. fellow scientists) have gone further to argue that what they consider to be lapses in scientific reasoning exhibited by Collins makes him a bad choice as head of the NIH. The problem is that these perceived ‘lapses in scientific reasoning’ evidently stem from his desire to reconcile science with Christianity, and so any criticism of Collins’ reasoning will come across as an attack on his faith. Clearly it has come across this way, resulting in the furious Christian response we are currently witnessing in the blogsphere and print media.

    It is my view however, that Francis Collins will do fine as the head of the NIH. Not all atheists are against Collins taking that job, by the way. Actually, many atheists are quite OK with it so I’m glad you’re not generalizing.

    Cheers.

  4. Jaki,

    I read the biologis link, and didn’t find anything that seemed to me a “defilement” of science. He seems to accept current scientific consensus about the origin of humanity but gives that history a Christian interpretation. What is there in what he says that contradicts science? It outruns science, to be sure, but that in itself does not imply defilement.

  5. @Jaki:

    Thanks for the friendly words.

    I too acknowledge the right of people like Sam Harris to voice their opinions. There are hate crimes laws on the books, and more being considered, and I would consider them to be an unconscionable infringement on liberty, even if they applied to people who hate what I stand for.

    Interestingly, scientists DO have plausible explanations for these phenomena, but Collins simply rejects them without giving good reasons for doing so.

    I haven’t read The Language of God, but I can certainly sympathize with him rejecting those “plausible reasons.” The only one that gets floated with any frequency at all is the completely unscientific multiverse theory, which exists (in physicist Bernard Carr’s words) because some people “don’t want God.” It’s plausible in the sense that it is not scientifically impossible. Other than that it is history’s greatest speculative riff on evidence-free violations of Occam’s Razor.

    t’s made worse by the fact that Collins uses his scientific credentials to promote these patently unscientific ideas. He, of all people, should know that his scientific ideas would need to withstand scrutiny of his peers before they can be taken seriously. Many of his peers find his ’scientific’ arguments for Christian Theism unpersuasive and unscientific, and are simply telling him why.

    They’re free to do so; I think they’re wrong, as Harris was wrong in this article.

    Can you point to a specifically scientific statement that Collins gets wrong? Here’s why I ask: I want to know whether you disagree with his science or with his philosophy and/or theology. And I want to know whether you can find actual fault with his science or not.

  6. Jaki,

    New Atheists claim that science can determine whether or not God exists. When they actually attempt to be specific about the type of evidence they would count as scientific evidence for God’s existence, it immediately becomes clear they are demanding gaps. Thus, it makes no sense to complain about God-of-the-gaps reasoning while demanding people use God-of-the-gaps reasoning to show God’s existence. The New Atheists’ problem with Collins is not that he invokes a gap, but that it is not gappy enough for them. This is a glaring example of employing double standards, and is disingenuous.

    Also, you refer to mysterious “critics” and “peers” when the only one being discussed here is Harris. Harris is not a peer of Collins. And while he may be a critic, he is an activist critic with a socio-political agenda. Of course Harris is going to criticize Collins, as that is a required talking point for his agenda. The only thing new and significant here is that Harris has shown himself to be a crackpot, for only a crackpot would have opposed the nomination of Francis Collins to head the NIH.

  7. Update: Francis Collins was unanimously approved on 8/7 by the US Senate to be NIH Director:
    http://www.news-medical.net/news/20090810/Secretary-Sebelius-announces-Senate-confirmation-of-Dr-Francis-Collins-as-Director-of-NIH.aspx
    He’s a Wahoo, like me! (Five years early.)
    BTW I already edited his page on Wikipedia to show this with a brief note, it will get polished later I’m sure. (I’m surprised it hadn’t been done already.)

    Here’s an interesting piece by Newsweek’s religion editor Lisa Miller:
    http://www.newsweek.com/id/209440.
    She writes:
    I do not believe that the Christian faith of Dr. Francis Collins, recently nominated to run the National Institutes of Health, disqualifies him from that job. The only questions that need be asked of Collins are these: Is he a good enough scientist? And will he be a passionate and relentless advocate for science and scientific research?

    She says he isn’t perfect anyway, so to speak, such as:
    My own misgivings relate not to his religiosity but to my suspicion of people who wear religion too outwardly, especially when that posture would seem to serve their own professional ends. Collins was an established scientist but hardly a household name before he “came out” so prominently as a Christian believer… It is not his religion, then, but his political ambition that prevents him from being crystal clear on one of the most volatile issues facing the NIH: embryonic-stem-cell research.

    Well, maybe but I suppose he can do OK. BTW for me this is more a matter of tolerance than clear agreement with his religious views, since I’m an “independent.”

    PS: Tom, I saw your column in the Daily Press Sunday. I like the part about the “dying” of one’s ego to find a greater self and reality. To me, that was the essence of Jesus’ message, not the IMHO contrived accounting mechanism of “substitutionary atonement.” (Not a put-down of those who believe that, it just doesn’t flow with my reading of the Synoptics.)

  8. This piece by Chris Mooney (a member of the “loyal opposition”) is better than the other:
    http://www.newsweek.com/id/206609.

    Money quote, to which I concur:

    The critics, though, have it exactly backward: the United States needs more scientists like Collins—researchers who show by their prominence and their example that a good scientist can still retain religious beliefs. The stunning irony in the longstanding tension between science and religion in America is that many scientists who merely claim to be defending rationality from religious fundamentalism may actually be turning Americans off to science, doing more harm to their cause than good.

    (And the symbolism in Captcha: “ionic …”)

  9. Hi Neil,
    Thanks for that comment on Newsweek.
    I should go read it in full but just noted the following about Miller’s thoughts.
    I’m not sure Collins’ is actually a household name even yet, nor do I think it had to be for him to be nominated (do many households know who Holdren is, or who past science appointees have been?) but just thinking back it seems Collins was doing ok before anyone (that I know of) knew of his “coming out”.
    He was, by wiki, head of NCHGR in ’93, leader of the Human Genome Project, feted by Clinton in 2000, leader of the year, etc., before his book ever came out. His accomplishments as a scientist, his role as an administrator, and his political connections were all well established long ago.

    Miller’s logic may not be sound by I can’t argue with her suspicion of those with political ambition – especially if she uses a single standard when wielding her suspicions.

    (you make a good point about the synoptics and their lack of a developed theology surrounding the Crucifixion and esp. the Resurrection. This speaks well of their antiquity.
    I don’t agree that the substitutionary atonement appears contrived, however, as the elements are plainly present in the then 700 year old book of Isaiah.)

  10. I’m sorry I have not addressed the questions that were posed in response my post #4. I didn’t realize I’d get immediate feedback! My apologies. Otherwise I really have enjoyed reading them. Thank you for taking the time to read mine.

    @ Franklin #5

    To begin with, Franklin in post #5 said he didn’t see what he considered a ‘defilement of science’ after viewing the contents of the link I presented. Well, the contents of that page reflect what to me is not the kind of speculation a serious scientist would indulge in. Here’s an excerpt from that page:

    “Perhaps the soul was bestowed as a part of humans receiving the image of God (Genesis 1:27).8 Perhaps human souls appeared with the breath of life that God breathes into his creation, as described in Genesis 2:7. We also cannot know whether God directly intervened in the evolutionary process at this point, or whether the unfolding evolutionary process produced the human soul.”
    http://biologos.org/questions/image-of-god/)

    Why do I think such speculation is unwarranted by a scientist of Collins’ caliber? Well, as far as I know there is no empirical evidence that a ‘soul’ exists, and to see a scientist endorsing a view that speculates over when ‘God must have put it in us’, is for me, shocking. Day by day the evidence coming in continues to support the idea that the mind is a product of the brain, undermining any notion of ‘souls’.

    Of course as believers I’m sure you hold to the view that you have a soul that ‘transcends the body’, so I suppose on this point we shall have to agree to disagree (or we can pursue it, if you like). By the way I would like to be educated on the difference between the ‘soul’ and the ‘spirit’. In Christian theism are they understood to be different things?

    @ Tom Gilson #6:

    You said: “Can you point to a specifically scientific statement that Collins gets wrong? Here’s why I ask: I want to know whether you disagree with his science or with his philosophy and/or theology. And I want to know whether you can find actual fault with his science or not.”

    OK. Here it is:

    “After evolution had prepared a sufficiently advanced “house” (the human brain), God gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the Moral Law), with free will, and with an immortal soul.”

    and

    “If the Moral Law is just a side effect of evolution, then there is no such thing as good or evil. It’s all an illusion. We’ve been hoodwinked. Are any of us, especially the strong atheists, really prepared to live our lives within that worldview?”

    Francis Collins understands the science of evolutionary biology. I suppose he does, since he dedicates many pages of Language of God to its defense. It is therefore impossible to understand how he can then proceed to argue that morality can’t be explained by evolution, even though decades of work has gone into researching this very aspect of human and primate evolution! His position on the origin of morality contradicts what is known today from evolutionary psychology, anthropology and related sciences which show that altrusim is most probably an evolved trait: (http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/3723/1/rutherford3723.pdf, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/06/070625085134.htm, http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1200/is_n23_v135/ai_7680117/).

    Hmm, given the evidence, would Collins suggest that God gifted animals with ‘souls’ and the ‘knowledge of good and evil’ too? (That’s something he’ll have to square with believers.)

    Plus, the arguments he presents for divine implantation of morality are purely anecdotal, and not presented in a scientific way at all. (Its worth reading his book to see how he presents this particular argument. (http://www.amazon.com/Language-God-Scientist-Presents-Evidence/dp/0743286391)

    I can see that this post is getting too long. Let me respond to Mike #8 in the next one.

    I’d like to know whether the posters here are Creationists, ID theorists or Theistic Evolutionists. Which of these theories of origins is this blog inclined towards?

    Cheers guys.

    P.S. I hear Francis Collins was unanimously confirmed. Congratulations! I wish him the best of luck.

  11. Jaki, check to see what others think but I (mere commenter) am basically into “anthropic design” – that the ways of the universe are “contrived” for our ultimate benefit. I am a little perturbed by the Collins quote, since it implies our brains couldn’t appreciate morality without an “intervention”. But the latter can be interpreted many ways. In any case, ultimately morality itself (not the ability to appreciate it) is IMO a sort of logically real structure about what we “should” owe each other (and more), and not something generated by any process at all.

  12. @ Mike Gene #8

    You said: “New Atheists claim that science can determine whether or not God exists. When they actually attempt to be specific about the type of evidence they would count as scientific evidence for God’s existence, it immediately becomes clear they are demanding gaps. Thus, it makes no sense to complain about God-of-the-gaps reasoning while demanding people use God-of-the-gaps reasoning to show God’s existence.”

    If it were me being asked what evidence would ‘count’ as evidence for God’s existence, I would start by seeking clarification on what you meant by ‘God’. I guess by ‘God’ most people mean the supernatural creator and sustainer of the universe. There in lies the problem, I think. People have often defined their gods according to what they thought was ‘responsible’ for phenomena that could not be understood AT THE TIME. This is why throughout human history we’ve had such things as fertility gods, volcano gods, forest gods, gods of harvest, moon gods, sun gods, gods of death, rain gods, etc..

    I’m sure you’ll agree that today we understand why these phenomena happen, and they have nothing to do with the plethora of entities who were often postulated as explanations for them.

    The gaps in our knowledge have reduced over time, and for that reason most civilized cultures have since abandoned the worship of many of these ‘gods’. Many mysteries STILL remain, however, and scientists are still a long way from fully explaining them. It is in these ‘gaps’ in our knowledge, where people see God today:

    a) How can you explain the origin of life? You can’t, can you? The answer – God!

    b) Scientists can’t explain what caused the Big Bang, can they? Why, of course – God!

    I am always amused whenever I read about Isaac Newton. He found out the mechanics behind how planets are able to orbit the sun. The problem was, he COULD’T UNDERSTAND how these orbits could remain stable, given that each planet exerted some gravitational force upon any planet that was sufficiently close enough for its gravity to act on it. This led Newton to say:

    “For by that kind of motion they pass easily through the orbs of the planets, and with great rapidity; and in their aphelions, where they move the slowest, and are detained the longest, they recede to the greatest distances from each other, and hence suffer the least disturbance from their mutual attractions. This most beautiful System of the Sun, Planets, and Comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.”

    (http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=PFukK9Gsii0C&pg=RA1-PA544&lpg=RA1-PA544&dq=Planets,+and+Comets,+could+only+proceed+from+the+counsel+and+dominion+of+an+intelligent+and+powerful+Being.&source=bl&ots=NgJazHycBQ&sig=J0_z5hs-gCbu9eUit8hZ5boSRhY&hl=en&ei=eDiESrWsAoTasgO8462iBw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=4#v=onepage&q=&f=false)

    In saying this, Newton seemed to declare the question of stable orbits to be forever beyond the scope of science to ever investigate, let alone explain. Isn’t it interesting, then, that only a century later, French astronomer and mathematician Pierre-Simon de Laplace was able formulate calculations explaining why and how these planets were able to sustain stable orbits?

    (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre-Simon_Laplace#Stability_of_the_solar_system)

    These days ‘fine-tuning’ or ‘anthropic’ arguments are popular. I ask you this: how do today’s fine tuning arguments differ from Newton’s dilemma with orbits?

    Whichever way you look at them, they are indistinguishable from God-of-the-Gaps arguments, I think. So when Collins uses these arguments to argue for the existence of God, it seems to me that the criticisms he receives are justified.

    In the Old Testament days the prophets never used philosophy and God-of-the-Gaps arguments to prove the Yahweh was God. They duked it out the hard way. Something in the vein of this experiment would impress me, if it could be done today:

    Elijah and the Prophets of Baal (http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1%20Kings%2018:20-40;&version=50😉

    If this experiment can be replicated hundreds of times under controlled conditions, maybe you’ll be able to shut the atheists up for good. As an atheist, I must say THIS is the kind of cumulative evidence I would need to warm up to the possibility that God exists.

  13. @Neil B #13

    “Jaki, check to see what others think but I (mere commenter) am basically into “anthropic design” – that the ways of the universe are “contrived” for our ultimate benefit. ”

    Then this video should fascinate you:

    The Hubble Ultra Deep Field in 3D
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oAVjF_7ensg

    From what we currently know, there are about 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe. Typical galaxies range from dwarfs with as few as ten million stars up to giants with one trillion stars. It is not known whether all stars have planetary systems, but so far we have found 335 planets in orbit around 284 different stars, suggesting that stars with planets in orbit around them are common. Try wrapping your head around the possible number of planets there might be in the universe as a whole! I’m sorry, but for me, it just strikes me as sheer vanity for one to suggest that all this – this whole universe – exists just so that ‘we’ could be in it.

    Further, to go beyond this and suggest that apparently there exists a sentient entity who ‘created’ this universe just so that creatures closely related to apes (on one out of the billions of trillions of planets in existence) could evolve over millions of years from bacteria just in order to have a ‘personal relationship’ with him (or it, or whatever third-person singular pronoun one wishes to apply to describe this entity) … is, for me, hard to believe.

    Isn’t it understandable that some people would find this difficult to accept? Do you really think atheists or non-theists are being unreasonable in expressing doubt over such ideas?

    What are your thoughts?

    Cheers.

  14. Jaki, you might not see this since it comes so late. However, if you read up on anthropic design, you find that it is the laws of nature themselves being withing very narrow ranges (like the value of the fine structure constant being a logically odd ~ 1/137) that make “life” permissible at all. This isn’t about how many planets there are and how easily life can form, given the physics is right to start with. And “anthropic” is a bad term, this idea isn’t just about people but living and intelligence at all. Elsewhere here, there is a link to David Heddle’s presentation on the fine-tuned universe.

    I accept people not believing in what they don’t see or find acting in the World. That’s fine, it just isn’t good enough for me. My belief in God comes from philosophical arguments about first cause and necessity etc., as well as personal intuition and experience. I take all “scriptures” with a grain of salt. Jesus: not sure what he was up to, but at least one point was to show that the death of the little self is needed to reach God.

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